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Crisis looms over Israeli settlements
Question of the Day
RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Just days after Mideast peace talks began in Washington, the first major crisis is already looming: Israel hinted Sunday it will ease restrictions on building in West Bank settlements, while the Palestinian president warned he’ll quit the talks if Israel resumes construction.
If he extends the freeze, he risks breaking up his hardline coalition. If he lifts the restrictions, he risks getting blamed for derailing negotiations and disrupting President Obama’s Mideast peace efforts soon after they began.
The Israeli prime minister struck an unusually conciliatory tone during the Washington peace summit and again on Sunday, when he briefed his Cabinet about his 2½-hour meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the U.S. capital.
Once a fervent opponent of Palestinian statehood, Mr. Netanyahu said Sunday he wants negotiations to succeed after 17 years of failed attempts. He also called for creative solutions to complicated problems, although he did not elaborate.
“I believe that what is needed now to move the process forward is not a proliferation of negotiating teams, but decisions by leaders,” he said. “In order to reach practical solutions, we will need to think about new solutions to old problems. I believe that this is possible.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s foreign minister, the hawkish Avigdor Lieberman, dismissed the whole process Sunday. He said a peace accord “is a target that is not attainable within the next year and not within the next generation.”
Under intense U.S. pressure, Israel imposed restrictions on most West Bank settlement construction last November in a bid to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. He has not yet said what he will do when the slowdown expires.
The Palestinians view a continued curb on settlement construction — even if it falls short of a complete freeze — as the true test of Mr. Netanyahu’s intentions.
Mr. Abbas told a group of Palestine Liberation Organization activists in Libya late Saturday that anything but an extension of the current slowdown is unacceptable. “If the (Israeli) government extends the Israeli decision to stop the settlements, we will continue the negotiations, and if it doesn’t extend, we will leave these negotiations,” Mr. Abbas said.
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians are willing to accept some border adjustments that would enable Israel to keep some of the largest settlements, but they fear Mr. Netanyahu is unwilling to cede large amounts of the territory they seek.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak signaled Sunday it’s unlikely the freeze will be extended in its current form. “I don’t think it will remain, and we’re looking for a way to ensure that this will not harm the continuation of the talks,” Mr. Barak told Israel Army Radio.
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